WNPR

Hartford Symphony Orchestra: Bullet Dodged, Hold the Rejoicing

Jan 21, 2016

The musicians took the high road, and for that the entire greater Hartford community should be grateful.

Bullet dodged.

Crisis averted.

The Hartford Symphony Orchestra has managed to pull itself back from the edge, and for that there should be quiet thanks, as opposed to loud rejoicing.

This is not the right moment for rejoicing, because there is still so much to do.

I want to place on the table a few of the many questions this organization faces, now that it has gotten its eleventh-hour hour reprieve.

But first I want to salute the musicians of the orchestra for making what I know was an agonizing decision: to willfully accept pay cuts – in some cases of more than 30 percent – in order to keep the HSO alive.

The cuts were so severe, and the problems that led to them so clearly not of the players' making, that some of the musicians must have been secretly tempted to invite the HSO brass to take their final offer and place it,  as the late Dizzy Dean used to say, where the sun don’t shine.

But instead they took the high road, and for that the entire greater Hartford community should be grateful. The musicians can walk onto the stage with their heads held high.

I also want to salute music director Carolyn Kuan for declaring, last week, that she would voluntarily reduce her pay “commensurately” with the players. What that means exactly in terms of dollars and cents hasn’t been clarified, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that she felt honor-bound to share in the pain that was being visited on her colleagues. Just for the record, she was evidently alone among management figures in feeling that obligation.

But now on to the future.

Credit iStock / Thinkstock
Take all of the concern that you expressed in recent months, and convert it into ongoing support for the orchestra that you almost lost.

As the HSO rebuilds and restructures, it will have to quickly address a host of  serious questions, including several that have been postponed for years. Here are a few of them:

·      Can we now, at long last, embark on a serious endowment campaign? I realize it’s easy to say this, much harder to do it. But in light of the near-death experience the HSO has just been through, and given that community awareness of the orchestra has probably never been higher than it is now, it feels as if it’s high time. There’s certainly no disputing that a plumped-up endowment is essential to the long-term health of the organization. So let’s begin.

·      Speaking of money, can we now expect to see the significant contributions that were supposed to follow after the HSO forged its management “alliance” with the Bushnell a year and a half ago? After all, as it was explained to many of us at the time, this was one of the main reasons for creating the alliance in the first place: that it would give larger donors the confidence they needed to invest in the orchestra’s future. The orchestra's future, with this new contract, is now.

·      And on the topic of the HSO/Bushnell alliance, can we look forward to a smart, thoughtful, clear-eyed,  reassessment of the entire arrangement when the initial two-year contract expires this spring? I for one don’t see that it make sense to de-couple the two organizations at this point, but I think everyone acknowledges that the particulars need to be reexamined on almost every count.

·      As just one of those particulars, can we count on the creation (or more accurately, the restoration) of a true executive leader of the HSO? The title is unimportant, but the scope of the job is very important: to be the true and proper administrative chief of the organization, with ultimate responsibility for everything from programming to audience development to advertising and promotion. And it should go without saying that the person must be drawn from the world of orchestral management.

·      Musicians: not to minimize the trauma of the past few months, but can you now stand shoulder to shoulder with the board (and its devoted new president, Jeff Verney) and the major supporters to convey a message of unity and common purpose to the wider community? It may be a cliché, but it’s all too true: the public yearns to be assured that the rancorous, confrontational tone of the past is, in fact, a thing of the past. As I think you all would agree, the next four years will tell us if you have just agreed to a blueprint for a healthy long-term future, or merely a stay of execution. You have a crucial role to play, offstage as well as on, in determining which it will be. One of the first tasks: repairing relationships with donors who were stung by careless or ill-considered remarks made during the heat of the impasse.

·      To everyone else: would you please take all of the concern and even alarm that you expressed in recent months, and convert it into ongoing support for the orchestra that you almost lost? Easiest methodology of all: buy tickets. Take your friends. Subscribe. You say you’re not “into” classical music? Get into it. Your life will be better.

Media: Kudos for covering the contract dispute so thoroughly. Now, with similar zeal, make a point of covering the orchestra’s actual musical activities.

Companies and businesses: I know a lot of you tend to do your arts giving through the Arts Council and other vehicles. But the HSO is sort of a special case. Look for ways to help. Buy some subscriptions and give them to employees or clients. CEOs and high-level execs – your names should be high up on the printed donor list, don’t you think?

I know you don’t want to be living and doing business in a city that doesn’t have a topnotch professional symphony orchestra.

In fact, if the past few months have demonstrated anything, it’s that none of us do.

Steve Metcalf was The Hartford Courant's full-time classical music critic and reporter for over 20 years, beginning in 1982. He is currently the curator of the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series at The Hartt School. He can be reached at spmetcalf55@gmail.com.